ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Op-ed

With all eyes on Gaza, Hamas might send the West Bank up in flames

The terror group’s popularity jumps as Palestinians lose confidence in Abbas, while IDF operations have killed hundreds and settler violence is at a high. Something has got to give

Ksenia Svetlova

Executive Director ROPES (Regional Organization For Peace, Economics & Security); Senior non-resident fellow Atlantic Council; former member of Knesset (Hatnua)

  • A Palestinian youth rides his scooter in the Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank on November 7, 2023, following an overnight raid by Israeli troops amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Hamas terror group. (Photo by Zain JAAFAR / AFP)
    A Palestinian youth rides his scooter in the Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank on November 7, 2023, following an overnight raid by Israeli troops amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Hamas terror group. (Photo by Zain JAAFAR / AFP)
  • Israeli soldiers restrain Jewish settlers after they stormed the Palestinian West Bank village of Dayr Sharaf following a terror attack in which an Israeli driver was shot dead, November 2, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
    Israeli soldiers restrain Jewish settlers after they stormed the Palestinian West Bank village of Dayr Sharaf following a terror attack in which an Israeli driver was shot dead, November 2, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
  • People wave Palestinian, Hamas and Fatah flags during a march in support of the people in the Gaza Strip, in the occupied West bank city of Nablus on October 26, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (Photo by Zain JAAFAR / AFP)
    People wave Palestinian, Hamas and Fatah flags during a march in support of the people in the Gaza Strip, in the occupied West bank city of Nablus on October 26, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (Photo by Zain JAAFAR / AFP)
  • An armed Palestinian man stands among residents in Jenin as they examine the damage sustained by a house during an IDF raid in the area on November 29, 2023.  (Zain Jaafar/AFP)
    An armed Palestinian man stands among residents in Jenin as they examine the damage sustained by a house during an IDF raid in the area on November 29, 2023. (Zain Jaafar/AFP)
  • Palestinians walk by a damaged building following an Israeli army operation in Jenin, Nov. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Palestinians walk by a damaged building following an Israeli army operation in Jenin, Nov. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
  • IDF soldiers scuffle with settlers from the Einav settlement trying to storm the town of Deir Sharaf in the Nablus governorate of the West Bank on November 2, 2023, after an Israeli was killed when his car came under fire. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
    IDF soldiers scuffle with settlers from the Einav settlement trying to storm the town of Deir Sharaf in the Nablus governorate of the West Bank on November 2, 2023, after an Israeli was killed when his car came under fire. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Throughout the weeklong truce between Israel and Hamas that ended Friday, jubilant Palestinian crowds gathered near Ofer military prison to greet the female and teenage security prisoners who were released daily as part of a hostage deal.

Many waved the green flags of Hamas, while the ex-prisoners — even those affiliated with other Palestinian factions — thanked Hamas military commander Muhammad Deif and political leader Yahya Sinwar. Palestinian Authority officials were nowhere in sight — they were not welcome in the sea of green.

Even before the current conflict — which began on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists invaded southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping another 240 to the Gaza Strip — Israel held thousands of Palestinian security prisoners. As of October 17, Israel said it was holding another 118 “unlawful combatants” captured on and after the October 7 atrocities. More recent figures have not been released.

The prisoners issue has long been top of mind for Palestinians — and it’s clear that Hamas has gained valuable political leverage by securing the release of 240 prisoners in the hostage deal.

Combined with the October 7 massacre, which is perceived by many Palestinians as an important military achievement and which reignited the world’s interest in the Palestinian cause (even at the cost of a humanitarian disaster in Gaza), it’s easy to understand why Hamas now enjoys unprecedented support in the West Bank.

According to an Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) poll, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, saw an unbelievable 89% increase in public support since the outbreak of the war. Its spokesman, Abu Obeida, was turned into a hero for many young people in 2021 during Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Released Palestinian security prisoners (wearing grey jumpers) who were released from the Israeli Ofer military facility in exchange for hostages freed by Hamas in Gaza, wave flags and chant slogans as they are paraded in Baytunia in the West Bank on November 24, 2023. (Jaafar ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Hamas popularity surges

Hamas — and especially its military wing — enjoys a surge in popularity while the Palestinian Authority is suffering immense damage to its reputation on the Palestinian street.

Although PA President Mahmoud Abbas is criticized in Israel for his refusal to loudly condemn the October 7 Hamas atrocities, in the West Bank he is being accused by his many enemies — Hamas first among them — of being a traitor and a collaborator with Israel. Just late last month, armed Palestinians killed two alleged informants for Israel in the West Bank city of Tulkarem and an angry mob reportedly dragged and stomped on their corpses in the street. It is not clear where Palestinian security forces were during the events.

The execution was a clear sign of shifting power dynamics in the West Bank and a frightening message to Ramallah. Hamas, meanwhile, is not circumspect about its goals. When the terror group mobilized crowds on the night of October 19 after a blast at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital — apparently due to an errant Palestinian Islamic Jihad projectile — it demanded not only victory over Israel, but the dismantling of Abbas’s regime.

Unlike his predecessor Yasser Arafat, Abbas has eschewed violence against Israel. But his diplomacy has yielded little in terms of Palestinian independence, making him an easy target for his violent opponents in Hamas.

Illustrative: Landscapers work beneath a billboard depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wearing a Hamas headband, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 23, 2023. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Fuel on the fire: Terror attacks and settler violence

During his meeting with Israeli leaders on November 30, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken again stressed the need for Israel to immediately hold extreme Israeli settlers accountable for violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Despite being underreported in Israel, violent attacks by extremist settlers are widespread, and a familiar phenomenon to many Palestinians. In the past, they have resulted in burned property and physical altercations. They have only increased in intensity since the start of the current conflict, with Palestinians reporting cases of abuse and murder, amid claims that the IDF does little to protect them from settler extremists.

Meanwhile, settlers have protested outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, claiming their lives are endangered due to insufficient Israeli response to deadly terror attacks in the West Bank.

An Israeli settler attacks and shoots an unarmed Palestinian man at point blank range during an incident in the Palestinian village of A-Tuwani village in the South Hebron Hills, October 13, 2023. (Screenshot courtesy of B’tselem, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Since the October 7 onslaught, the IDF is aggressively operating in Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem and other West Bank towns and cities to thwart planned terror attacks, eliminate underground tunnels and confiscate deadly weapons.

According to the Palestinian Authority health ministry, 225 Palestinians have been killed in these operations and clashes with the IDF, and in a few cases at the hands of violent settlers. Among the dead are numerous Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihan terrorists, but also 50 children and teenagers.

This past week, two boys, Ahmed al-Ghoul and Basel Abu al-Wafa, aged 8 and 15, were killed in the Jenin refugee camp during an exchange of fire between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen.

Palestinians attend the funeral for two killed in an Israeli airstrike, in the West Bank city of Jenin, October 27, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The tense calm that prevailed during the first week of the Gaza conflict is clearly over. The combination of an emboldened Hamas, Israeli military raids, settler violence, a deterioration of economic conditions, incitement and pure desperation might plunge the West Bank back into the abyss.

In this case, Israel might find itself militarily engaged on yet another front and, as in Gaza, without any reasonable Palestinian partner to engage with.

For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had weakened the PA in the West Bank and allowed Hamas to become strengthened in Gaza. Today, this failed policy is bearing some poisonous fruit: Hamas might be defeated in Gaza, but ignite an intifada in the West Bank and oust the more moderate regime of Mahmoud Abbas.

The writer, a former Member of Knesset, is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and executive director of ROPES.

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